Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Balanescu Quartet: "Possessed" - Music of Kraftwerk, David Byrne and Alexander Balanescu - The Balanescu Quartet - Mute Records 1992

This is, truly, one of my absolute favorite String Quartet recordings. I am not speaking of "favorite" String Quartets (Bartok, Shosti, and so on) however, but rather exciting music written for and here more importantly-played by a String Quartet. And a fine Quartet the Balanescu is! In many ways The Balanescu Quartet approaches music the way the Kronos always have. The moment the disc opens with "Robots" one can hear that something special is about to unfold, and it continues, "Model" has never sounded so beautiful-all of these transcriptions just work so remarkably well-and they make me feel a bit more alive. Truly I urge everyone to listen to this one.

During the 1990s, one year on a summer's day, I 'got lucky' (musically speaking of course) when my then girlfriend's friend happened to have a copy of "Possessed" with her in the car. We didn't listen to it, but rather my girlfriend exclaimed "oh you must let him borrow the disc! he hasn't heard the Balanescu Quartet before" as we were exiting the car. I was intrigued & excited from the moment I looked at the disc; the first five works to my surprise were transcriptions for string quartet of a few of Kraftwerk's best known pieces. Kraftwerk/"Kraftwelt" the seminal electronic ensemble, was formed in Düsseldorf in 1970 by Ralf Hütter (electronic organ, synthesizers) and Florian Schneider (flutes, synthesizers, electro-violin). Kraftwerk are *the* pioneers in electronic music, and well, music in general. According to music journalist Neil McCormick, Kraftwerk might be "the most influential group in pop history" NME wrote: "The Beatles and Kraftwerk may not have the ring of The Beatles and the Stones, but, nonetheless, these are the two most important bands in music history". This isn't far-fetched, folks. Kraftwerk's music has directly influenced all the electronic acts that followed in their wake but also many popular artists from diverse genres of music, including David Bowie and Depeche Mode. (Depeche Mode, one of my favorite ensembles since I was an adolescent, has also influenced countless musicians and artists. From 'pop', contemporary electronic/dance and other genres, music post-1980 truly would not be the same had they not existed. But that's another story)  

"The string quartet has been unchanged for 200 years or so," considers Alexander Balanescu, "but the format seems to be infinitely flexible." Having worked with Michael Nyman, The Pet Shop Boys, John Lurie and Kate Bush, Balanescu has made it his business to utilise that flexibility and apply the ingenuity of The Balanescu Quartet to explore uncharted territories. "We were looking for a new generation of composers, and we could not find them! So we said to ourselves, 'Why should we be restricted to what is called serious classical music?" The Quartet's first collision with pop culture came in 1989, when Neil Tennant hired the Quartet to play his own choice of Stravinsky, Webern and Shostakovich on The Pet Shop Boys' first tour, and then had Balanescu arrange their 'October Symphony'.

Alexander Balanescu (born June 11th, 1954 in Bucharest, Romania), the son of a university professor, was raised in Romania before his family moved to Israel in 1969. Alexander lived the globe trotting life of an exile, studying the violin in London and at the Julliard school in New York. Upon his return to London, he joined the Arditti Quartet, who, renowned for their commitment to new composers, would perform up to 100 new works a year. "During the three years I spent with them, I got to play the music of Ligeti, Xenakis, Carter and many others," Balanescu recalls. "I learnt a tremendous amount. But I also realized this type of contemporary music is addressing itself to a very small circle of people, really. In fact, mainly critics and other composers! So I left the Arditti Quartet to create my own, in order to do music that can immediately communicate with people". He formed the Balanescu Quartet in 1987, initially joined by Clare Connors (second violin), Bill Hawkes (viola) and Caroline Dale (cello). Having already developed strong working relationships with fellow contemporary composers Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars, the quartet has gone on to perform classical works by John Cage, Kevin Volans, and Robert Moran. They broke new ground in 1992 with the album at hand, "Possessed" for independent label Mute Records, which as mentioned above featured acoustic transcriptions of five Kraftwerk electronic pieces. This was justified thus: "There have been violins for two hundred years, and we're trying to bring them into harmony with modern compositions." The 1994 follow-up, "Luminitza", was titled after the Romanian word for ‘small light’. For Balanescu, it represented the lights beckoning him to the homeland his family left in 1989: "A little bit of hope in the darkness. That even after the downfall of Ceaucescu's totalitarian regime in 1989 still shrouds Romania". The album utilized samples and programmed percussion, and was completely self-penned by Balanescu and Connors. The duo was joined on the album by Andy Parker (viola) and Nick Cooper (cello). The following year the Balanescu Quartet collaborated with the Luminitza Chamber Orchestra on the soundtrack for Philip Haas' film "Angels & Insects" (1995). They also appeared on albums by Bryars and UK rock band Spiritualized.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s Balanescu maintained a busy working schedule, completing an album of Yellow Magic Orchestra (another important early ensemble) treatments and composing a full score for the Italian movie "Il Partigiano Johnny" (2000), in addition to working with the quartet on numerous recordings of classical and avant garde composers. The 2005 release "Maria T" was inspired by iconic Romanian folk singer Maria Tanase. Balanescu teamed up with Austrian video artist Klaus Obermaier to create a multi-media live show based around the album.

An opportunity arose when, having signed to Mute, Balanescu turned his attention to the music of Kraftwerk, for 1992's "Possessed". "I feel they're a very important name in new music, " he commented at the time. "In a sense they are electronic composers in the same way that Berio and Stockhausen are. Actually, I think Kraftwerk's music has even more power than Stockhausen's; because of its simplicity. Their sound world is enormous. They've never worked for art's sake; they're also commentators on modern life. The music is tied in with ideas about our society, and that's what really attracted me." 

Together with a reappraisal of David Byrne's "Hanging Upside Down" and three of Balanescu's own compositions: 'Possessed', 'Want Me' and 'No Time Before Time', the album was released in September 1992, and crossed the pop and classical critical divide as effortlessly as Balanescu had envisaged. For me, Balanescu's own works here barely matter (can't say I'm a fan of his personal efforts this time) nor do they hold a candle to the masterful re-workings of the Kraftwerk gems. But, no matter, it's the first 5 tracks that make this a desert-island disc for me!

Clare Connors was given the task of arranging Kraftwerk's Top 20 hits 'The Robots', 'The Model', 'Autobahn', 'Computer Love' and 'Pocket Calculator' for the string quartet. "There is a classical quality about these songs," enthused Balanescu. "They are almost mechanistic in terms of harmonic and melodic structures. And a string quartet itself is a very finely tuned mechanism. Perversely, I did not want to use any electronic effects to recreate their sound world. We had to develop a special way of playing to find new sounds and translate this music into string language. We wanted to emphasise the hardness of their sound as well as its romantic side." "Balanescu isn't alone in marrying contemporary sounds with a more sophisticated presentation, but he is the most imaginative," said NME. "Kraftwerk's electronic blueprints have made the jump to the rarefied chamber format with consummate elegance," agreed The Guardian. The Quartet performed their Kraftwerk set at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall in May 1993, and after an enthusiastic response from Kraftwerk themselves, with the German pioneers on two consecutive evenings at the 1993 ARS Electronica Festival in Linz. 

It seemed a good idea to upload the original Kraftwerk tracks as supplements and for comparison, yet I confess laziness; I know not where my original disc is, and I have it on a few hdrives too...but I have a quite a few of those as well ;) If interested, I will upload Kraftwerk in the near future-let me know.

I hope the rest of you string quartet-freaks out there enjoy this as much as I do!


Scraps said...

I love the Arditti Quartet, more than any quartet. And I am not a critic or composer; just a fan!


gypsykat said...

I have enjoyed this recording many times over the last several years. I do like Kraftwerk, but the string quartet lets us hear the music in new ways. Great stuff!

Tzadik said...

I agree the Arditti is one of the finest. I hope you enjoy this disc (the 5 Kraftwerk pieces are great, the rest of the program I could live without, although there a few moments I enjoy..)

-Pretend it's the Arditti Quartet playing, you'll enjoy this offering more ;P


Tzadik said...

Hi there gypsykat, thank you for commenting, it's always nice for me to see a new name around here!
I quite like the originals and of course the string quartet transcriptions-whether I like the quartet versions more, well I think I do however I grew up with the originals and I love Kraftwerk in general; I guess it's a toss up!


Johannes R. Becher said...

I started listening to this prior to reading the review and, believe it or not, although at first I thought something stimmt nicht, I didn't realize it was Kw's Robots what I was hearing.

I cannot say I'm fond of pop music transcriptions. Nonetheles this one is quite acceptable, much more than those of Metallica or Joy Division, and I guess it may be put off to the transcriber's ability as much as to the quality of the involved target material. That the deceptively simple KW's creations do better when interpreted with acoustical instruments that the voluminous Metallica sound or the sophisticated Joy Division tunes comes as a bit of a surprise.


Tzadik said...

Johannes, nice to hear from you friend.

I can understand that, initially it takes most people by surprise, and if one does not know prior
that it is a 're-worked' "Robots"-it might be difficult to pick up on!

There are many dreadful transcriptions out there (I do like *original* Metallica, their early albums anyhow and Joy Division...again original songs) and a handful of successful renderings (Aphex Twin, Beck, Squarepusher as played by the NYPhil/and string orchestras, somewhat obscure examples) and I find this
recording to be one of the most successful that I have ever heard.